An odd source of comfort

Well I’m on the Downeaster ‘Alexa,’
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound,
I have charted a course to the Vineyard,
But tonight I am Nantucket bound.

– opening verse of Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’

My mind is pleased by songs with a strong tune and singable lyrics, especially if those lyrics tell a good story.  It’s the reason I’m drawn to country music, as well as to classic rock and pre-Auto-Tune pop.  Not all of Billy Joel‘s songs are sufficiently melodic for my taste, but those that are have stuck with me throughout my life.

Like many people who can tell you when they first heard a particular song, I have stories for most of my favorite Billy Joel tracks.  When I was a kid, my dad often put on “No Man’s Land” (which is a great piece of commentary on suburbia – “No major industry, just miles and miles of parking space”) while washing dishes after dinner.  I listened to “Shades of Grey” on an early iPod under an old green comforter at Girl Scout camp, and its message of the increasingly blurred lines between right and wrong was perfect for a teenager learning to navigate an imperfect world.

But if I had to pick one Billy Joel song that means the most to me, it’d be “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'”.  There is no good reason why I should feel a connection with this song.  Like the perhaps better-known “Allentown,” it’s a story about the plight of the American working class, in this case fishermen off the coast of New England.  It has literally nothing to do with my life, and it’s a pretty depressing theme when you think about it.  To me, though, it’s a source of calm and strength.

The first time I really paid attention to this song was the summer I was 19.  It was my first solo road trip, down highways with patchy radio reception and an actual rest area exit named Bad Route Road.  I’d brought along my new copy of the album Storm Front, hoping to finally be able to hear all the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  The resounding chords and generally epic feel of “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'” caught my ear and I began looking forward to it on each round through the CD.

Despite my mother’s fears, no dangerous strangers waylaid me on the road.  I didn’t run out of gas or break down or get lost.  I did, however, get hassled by a Canadian border guard.  Apparently deciding that there was something suspicious about being young and alone and female, he asked for my driver’s license (my passport, which I had ready, was not an acceptable substitute) and my college student ID.  (Note to Canadian officials: no American teenager is going to bother making a fake ID that says she’s 19.)  This was still insufficient evidence that I was safe to cross the international border, so he made me pull over and stand aside while they searched my car.

Eventually, I was allowed to go on, but the incident was tense and humiliating.  I burst into tears as I was driving away.  Of course I had no cell phone reception, so I couldn’t call anyone for reassurance.  Instead, I turned up the stereo to an ear-blasting level and started singing along to Billy Joel with as much force as I could manage.  It helped.

And that’s why my baby is sometimes offered comfort in the form of me wailing, “I know there’s fish out there, but where God only knows……”

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